They are called the first first responders, and their often invisible role can be the difference between life and death.
Though the average 911 call in Hall County only lasts 4.5 minutes officials say it’s a vital part of emergency response. Answering an emergency call is more than just picking up the phone – it can mean instructions in CPR, stopping bleeding, even delivering babies.
“That four or five minutes between when we dispatch and when agencies get there because of drive time, we can provide life-saving instructions,” says Grand Island/Hall County Emergency Management Director Jon Rosenlund.
Dispatcher Jenny Hostler says her job doesn’t end when a call disconnects.
“We take the call, try to get as much information, but once - even if they hang up before we’re done - we send the officers, we help the officers with what they need done once they get on scene,” says Hostler, the Daytime Shift Supervisor for the Grand Island Emergency Center.
Managing police, fire, and rescue traffic also means sending out wreckers, the Red Cross, Animal Control, or power companies to help with emergencies.
Hostler says the variety of calls has been a staple of her eleven-year career, but just about everything else has changed.
“This [computer] is all of our radio, setting off the alarms, and all of that – when I started it was buttons all the way across the bottom – it was analog basically,” she says.
Officials say technology changes in the GIEC try to keep pace with shifts in the way people communicate.
“Over the last 12 months our cell phones are about 88% of our call volume,” says Rosenlund.
Maps, pictography, and databases are at a dispatcher’s fingertips, making them expert multi-taskers.
“I’m looking at the screen, but I can look over here for a phone number, address, I can look on this map to confirm that what it looks like – you start to be able to use the tools that are there, they’re no good if you don’t know how to use them,” says Hostler.
Dispatchers are also looking ahead to what’s called “next generation 911.” They believe text messages and perhaps social media will be among the information they gather to send help, but that technology is still years away.
“You really still have just that one dispatcher or those two dispatchers in a room, now they have to drink from a fire hydrant of information,” says Rosenlund.
Just talking can be its own challenge for a dispatcher, whether that’s a language barrier with a caller or switching between departments that use 10-codes or plain speak on the radio.
Though their role isn’t always acknowledged, Hostler says she thinks of it as being on a team: a successful emergency call is a win for a dispatcher too.
“Being an… ‘unsung hero’ is probably a little easier in some ways,” she says. “But we know, that’s what counts.”